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Security Cooperation with China: Analysis and a Proposal

Authored by Dr. Thomas L. Wilborn. | November 1994

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Suspended for 5 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the United States and China have renewed the security cooperation relationship initiated in 1983.

From 1971, when National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger visited Beijing to affect rapprochement with China, until 1983, security cooperation between the two nations was sporadic and limited, even though their common opposition to the Soviet Union was the basis of the relationship. However, by 1983, adventurist moves by the Soviet Union, including the invasion of Afghanistan, coupled with an understanding between Washington and Beijing concerning U.S. relations with Taiwan, had set the conditions for a more extensive and systematic program.

U.S.-China policy called for "three pillars" of security cooperation: high level visits, functional exchanges, and sales of defensive weapons and weapons technology. In fact, frequent high level visits involved the key defense and military figures of each nation.

However, functional exchanges, organized by individual services and only begun in 1985, were limited and engaged relatively few mid-level officersfrom both sides. The initiative for these exchanges appears to have come from the United States. By 1988, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had begun to withdraw from the functional exchange program between its ground forces and the U.S. Army.

The last "pillar," arms sales, turned out to be limited, also. The PLA sought only a few systems, although it discussed a broad array of weapons and equipment with U.S. Government and defense industry representatives. The PLA entered into four Foreign Military Sales Agreements and several commercial contracts involving relatively small purchases when compared to other U.S. customers, including Taiwan. President George Bush suspended all aspects of security cooperation in June 1989.

Had the events of Tiananmen Square not abruptly interrupted the U.S.-China security cooperation program, significant alterations would probably have begun to occur anyway. The profound changes which have transformed the international system and brought an end to the cold war were already in progress in 1989. U.S.-Soviet relations were no longer confrontational and, more importantly, President Mikhail Gorbachev had conceded virtually all Chinese preconditions to Sino-Soviet rapprochement. Washington and Beijing are renewing security cooperation at a time when the trends which were unfolding in 1989 have already resulted in a new decentralized international system. The cold war and one of the protagonists have disappeared. Thus,the strategic rationale which justified U.S.-China security cooperation in the 1970s and 1980s is no longer valid.

But the United States and China are key factors respectively in each other's foreign and security policy calculations. As a major East Asian power, China's behavior inevitably affects regional stability, and also influences U.S. global interests. Security cooperation, supplementing other aspects of binational relations, increases the ability of the United States to influence and be better informed aboutChina and the PLA. It is also important for the United States to improve its contacts with China's military because as an institution the PLA performs critical political and economic roles within China.

Structurally, renewed U.S.-China security cooperation can be modeled on the program of the 1980s. However, the purpose of the high level visits, functional exchanges, and technological cooperation will no longer be to strengthen a strategic alliance against a common enemy, but instead to contribute to stability in an important region of the world and to the attainment of U.S. global objectives.

Three other important characteristics should be included in renewed U.S. security cooperation with China. These are:

  • Policy direction centralized in OSD;
  • Relatively slow, deliberate pace; and
  • Transfer of only defensive weapons which cannot be used against Chinese civilians or seen to endanger regional power balances.


After a hiatus of almost 5 years, the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC) have resumed security cooperation and military-to-military relations. Exchanges of high level visits are taking place again, and students from the U.S. Air War College and the National Defense University are visiting Beijing. The U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) have reestablished military-to-military contacts. And Washington and Beijing have agreed to establish a binational commission on defense conversion, through which the United States will help the PLA adapt some of its systems, beginning with air traffic control, for civilianuses.1

Despite ideological differences and historical animosity, the United States and China initially established a program of security cooperation at the height of the cold war as an expression of a common strategic interest in restraining the Soviet Union. By the late 1980s, the two governments were regularly exchanging high level visits of defense and military officials and military delegations were probing common functional problems. The United States had also approved a few weapons sales to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) . But on June 4, 1989, before CNN cameras, PLA units fired indiscriminately into demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and their supporters in Beijing, killing at least 700 and wounding thousands.2 As a result, President George Bush suspended all U.S. contacts with the Chinese military and imposed commercial sanctions on China. His administration did not resume military-to-military relations with the PLA.

Security cooperation between the United States and China in the 1990s and beyond obviously is no longer required as a means to contain Soviet expansion. The Soviet Union's principal successor, Russia, is not an enemy (although perhaps a potential longer-term adversary) of either nation. The strategic justification for resuming this relationship spawned in the cold war is now based on a different set of factors and priorities.

The purpose of the following analysis is to propose the outline of a new U.S.-PRC security cooperation program, based on the political and strategic context of the 1990s. It begins with a summary of previous security cooperation between the two nations, in order to find hints of the more--and less--effective ways to engage China in military-to-military relations, and simply to provide an account of the earlier relationship. That is followed by an analysis of the current environment of U.S.-China relations, focusing on how the behavior of China, and specifically the PLA, may impinge on U.S. security interests and identifying potential risks and benefits of security cooperation with China. Then the author provides his suggestions for U.S.-PRC security cooperation. The final section is a restatement of the major conclusions of the analysis.

Some Conclusions

Assuming Washington designs and executes its participation sensibly, renewed U.S. security cooperation with China, including routine military-to-military contacts, supports stability in East Asia, the overarching U.S. regional security objective, and increases the opportunities to solicit Beijing's support in achieving some global objectives as well. To assure that U.S. objectives guide all activities, policy formulation should be centralized in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. However, the program, which should be framed primarily to increase mutual understanding rather than achieve operational cooperation, is unlikely to produce immediate or dramatic results.

The renewal of U.S.security cooperation with China, potentially the most influential nation in the region, strengthens stability in East Asia by supplementing other dimensions of Sino-American relations, thereby increasing U.S. involvement with China and--perhaps more significantly--enhancing the perception that the United States is fully engaged with the PRC. East Asian leaders view Sino-American consultations and dialogue, particularly when they explicitly involve security affairs, as one of the factors which could restrain China's behavior, were the need to arise. These leaders make decisions for their own nations partly on the basis of this perception. If security cooperation results in more transparency in China's defense system, an objective which the United States should pursue, the result would be even greater predictability and stability in East Asia.

In reality (as distinguished from the realm of perceptions), renewed security cooperation has not significantly enhanced U.S. influence in Beijing thus far, and probably will not do so in the near future. But it probably can expand the opportunities for American officials to explain U.S. positions on nonproliferation, global environmental concerns, illegal narcotics traffic, terrorism, and other global issues, including some which may not have direct security implications. The United States will also have more frequent opportunities to persuade China to expand its recognition of human rights. In addition, PLA officers participating in military-to-military activities should be able to observe, and hopefully appreciate, U.S. counterparts functioning in accordance with Western human rights standards.

U.S.-China military-to-military relations should be kept at a level sufficient to keep an inter-military dialogue going but modest enough not to strain the capacity of either side. In offering weapons and military technology to the PLA, Washington must always consider regional military balances and the attitudes of other East Asian governments. Moreover, it must avoid selling the PLA weapons which might be used against its own population.


1. Steve Mufson, "U.S. to Help China Shift Arms Output to Civil Use," The Washington Post, October 18, 1994, p. 28.

2. The exact number of casualties is unclear. The official report listed over 200 dead, mostly military and security personnel, and 3,000 injured civilians and 6,000 injured military and security personnel. Chinese Red Cross officials initially reported 2,600 dead, but later denied the figure. Western newsmen estimated several thousand dead based on leaks from Chinese security personnel and checks of some Beijing hospitals. Far Eastern Economic Review, Asia 1990 Yearbook, Hong Kong, 1990, p. 110, estimates at least 700.